June 2010

Silver Lake Vermicomposting-06-11-10

In my first “Summer Camp Vermicomposting” post I mentioned that I was expecting to receive some images of the finished Silver Lake system at some point. Well, Leanne did indeed send some along (thanks again, Leanne!), so here ya go.
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As you can see, it is a beautiful looking worm bed – I can’t wait to actually see it up close! Speaking of which, I am hoping to head up to the Silver Lake camp next week for my first visit! So you can expect a much more in-depth update on the project fairly soon!
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Mark’s OSCR-06-11-10

Hi everybody,

I harvested my flow through and it was a job! This is a picture of what USED to be our garbage. If you remember I started this bin back in October of 2009 to see how much waste I could put through this thing.

I harvested because: We needed some nice VC for our yard, to see what I could find at the bottom regions, and I was expecting a ton of manure (the manure still has not arrived).

I have been running my bin on the cool side (low 60s) to slow down the worms a little till I can get some more feed stock.

Those are all 18 gallon tubs except for that little one.


‘Mark from Kansas’ is an avid vermicomposter from…well…Kansas, and contributing author here at Red Worm Composting. When he is not tending to his OSCR worm bin, Mark also enjoys spending time with his wife Letty (who also doubles as his trusty vermicomposting assistant) and picking petunias (ok, Bentley just made that last bit up).


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Vermi Tomato Gardening

Vermi Tomato Box

I am a serious tomato fanatic, so each growing season I’m always thinking about “how many” tomato plants I’ll be putting in, not “IF” I’ll be growing them that season. Invariably, I end up buying WAY too many, and I’m left trying to find homes for them all in various (often weird) locations around my property.

This year was supposed to be different – and it DID start that way! I purchased less than 20 small plants, and I knew exactly where they were going to go ahead of time.

But then one of my “hair-brained ideas” hit and I just HAD to go out a buy 33 more!
😯

Long story short, earlier in the spring I ripped up the grass just outside of my fence (running along the sidewalk), and have planted a row of giant sunflowers (which are doing quite well so far). I thought it might ALSO be fun to run a row of “help yourself” tomatoes right along the sidewalk. I’ve been gradually moving towards creating a suburban “demonstration eco-garden” to help educate the neighborhood a bit (and hopefully make people realize that I’m not just a complete lunatic – haha) – and I thought this would be a great way to make an impact. As it is, I already get quite a lot of nice comments from people walking by, so this has helped me to feel more confident about my idea.

Anyway…after giving my “help yourself tomato fence” idea some more thought, I decided not to go ahead with it this year. I knew it would require a LOT of extra work, along with the seemingly obvious (in hindsight, of course – haha) fact that the “Kong” sunflowers are just going to end up crowding/shading the tomatoes.

SO, I’m left with 33 extra tomato plants – specifically “Tomatoberry” plants. Needless to say, I think this is going to be the “year of the tomato” in my garden!
😆

Ok – now let’s start talking about the fun things I’m going to try out! In this post I’ll talk specifically about my wooden box gardens, but you had better believe there will be other posts featuring OTHER tomato growing approaches, and so on and so forth!

Some of you may recognize these wooden boxes as the containers used for my ill-fated “Worm Composting Potato Towers“. I’m not sure if it was the rainy, cool weather last summer, or flaws in my approach (likely both), but it seemed that potatoes and composting worms were not destined to live together in a mutually beneficial habitat (may try it again at some point though).

Tomatoes, while closely related to potatoes, are a different beast, so I thought I might have more success with them being grown in a similar fashion – i.e. basically being grown in a worm bed. Just to be on the safe side though, I opted to do more of a ‘hybrid’ approach – at least initially (while the plants are still small, and the material in the bin is still fairly unprocessed). As such, I created normal soil zones where the plants are being started.

In one box, I decided to try a four corner approach with “Sweet Million” cherry tomatoes.

Tomato Growing Zones

I started by filling the box with a little yard waste (at the bottom) and aged horse manure/straw. I then excavated cavities in the four corners of the bed. These were then filled with “black earth” soil and some old worm compost before the plants were added.

Planting Sweet Million Tomato Plant

I was thinking it would be cool to add a “Worm Tower” in the middle, but in thinking about it a bit more I decided that I don’t need to get that fancy! I will simply deposit “food” materials directly in the bed (in the central zone) instead. One such food material will be the alpaca manure I wrote about recently, but I’ll almost certainly be adding food wastes as well.

In the second box, I thought I would try growing a single “Beefsteak” tomato plant, smack dab in the middle. I had visions of turning this plant into a giant tomato tree, but as I’ll explain in a minute, my dreams came crashing down in a hurry!

I set up the tomato “habitat” in exactly the same manner as I did in the four corners bin. I dug a hole, filled it will black earth and worm compost, then put in the tomato plant.

Beefsteak Tomato in Worm Box

Unlike the Sweet Million plants (which as you can see in the first picture, are doing just fine), the Beefsteak unfortunately went downhill almost immediately after it was planted (see picture below). I’m not really sure what happened there, but I decided to scrap that approach for the time being – and ended up creating (much more recently) another four-corner bed using grape tomatoes.

Dying Tomato in Worm Box

Based on the healthy appearance of the Sweet Million plants thus far, I am guardedly optimistic that this is going to work out well. At the moment, there aren’t all that many Red Worms in either bed (as compared to some of my other beds), so I think it may be important to up the population fairly soon. I want the tomatoes to have some nice material through-which they can spread their roots – and at the moment, a lot of it is pretty raw stuff (which may explain why the beefsteak didn’t do so well.

In upcoming “Vermi Tomato Gardening” posts I’ll write about my new raised bed (tomato) garden, and my vermi (tomato – haha) container gardens as well! Oh, and of course we’ll have to spend some time talking about tomatoes being grown next to my various vermicomposting trenches, and perhaps a mention of the tomato plant I plan to try in my vermiponics system!

Stay tuned! Much more vermi-tomato content to come.
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Vermicomposting Alpaca Manure

Alpaca

I recently connected with a local source of alpaca manure (will write all about that in another upcoming post) and have been very excited to test it out in my outdoor worm beds. I’ve used some goat manure this year and the worms really seem to like it, so I was optimistic that the same would be true of the alpaca manure. Aside from “gut feelings” about this stuff, I happen to know of at least a couple RWC readers who have used Red Worms to create compost from alpaca poop – so it’s certainly not like I’m on the edge of some scary new frontier or something!
😆

As alluded to a minute ago, alpaca manure is similar to goat manure – that is to say that it consists smaller pellets, rather than the larger…uhhh…deposits some of the other farmyard beasts can produce. I also think that it might be a bit more ‘mellow’ than some of the other manures, meaning the worms will potentially move into it more quickly. Hopefully some of the alpaca pros in the audience can chime in and provide their input in that department.

Alpaca Manure

I brought home quite a few bags of the stuff last Thursday, and of course did NOT waste any time adding some to various outdoor systems. Most of my focus will be on my big wooden worm bin, where I plan to add mostly alpaca poop over the course of the next few months. I poured in several bags as soon as I arrived home with it and watered it down fairly well (it was quite dry). Since then, I’ve noticed that the worms are definitely showing a real interest in it – I’ve also noticed that the pellets are becoming more of a fine particulate material. This is cool, since I’ve read that smaller particle size (in worm food) can have a really significant positive impact on the growth of worms. Hmmm…maybe it’s time to start up another RWC experiment!

Alpaca Manure Vermicomposting

I also have some other plans for my new alpaca poop, and will write about those in an upcoming post.
Stay tuned!
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Mystery Worms – Nematomorpha?

Horse Hair Worm?

Several days ago I was quite surprised to come across an unusual worm sitting on the edge of my rain barrel. Given its jerky flailing movements, on first glance I assumed it was some sort of long “inch worm” (i.e. a type of caterpillar), but I quickly realized it was something else altogether. Given my background in identifying aquatic invertebrates (what I used to do as a “job”), I’m generally not thrown off by any small creepy crawly critters I come across on my property. This worm definitely had me stumped though.

My first guess was that it was some sort of giant nematode. As such, I did some digging online to see if I could track down any types of nematode that are not only large, but also terrestrial (or at least semi-terrestrial). Most of the nematodes I’ve come across in aquatic samples (and in my worm bins for that matter) were very tiny – either microscopic, or barely visible. As I learned, there IS a family of large-bodied parasitic nematodes, Mermithidae, that seemed to fit the bill. According to the Wikipedia entry for these worms, they are most commonly parasites of arthropods (insects, spiders, crustaceans etc), but there was also mention of the fact that a few species are known to parasitize earthworms!
😯

Ok – so I’m not really worried. In fact, I don’t even think these are mermithid nematodes at all! Another type of large nematode-like worm is the “Horsehair Worm” or “Gordian Worm”, and I’m not sure why these didn’t come to mind right off the bat – I certainly found plenty of them in various aquatic samples I used to sort through.

Gordian Worms, like mermithids, are typically parasites of various types of arthropods (grasshoppers are one of the more common hosts, I believe) – not the adult worms themselves, but the larvae that hatch out from the eggs they lay.

Since finding my first specimen, I’ve started seeing more of them – generally after rainfall (something we’ve been getting a lot of lately). I collected a couple of them today so I could take some pictures.

Horse Hair Worm?

I will be very interested to see if I can determine what poor group of critters is going to be their host this year. I tend to have a decent population of grasshoppers and crickets each year so I’ll be keeping a close eye on them once they arrive.

Of course, just to be absolutely sure these worms aren’t up to no good, I will also be keeping a very close eye on my outdoor Red Worm beds!
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By the way, I came across this video on YouTube featuring a bunch of these worms in someone’s garden. These look exactly like the ones I’ve been finding around my yard

If you want to be really grossed out, check out this video showing horsehair worms leaving their cricket host:

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Summer Camp Vermicomposting

Silver Lake Mennonite Camp

A little while ago I was contacted by Leanne Baer, who runs (with her husband) the Silver Lake summer camp for kids, located near Sauble Beach Ontario (about an hour and a half northwest of me). She was looking for composting worms (and LOTS of them), and hoping to pick my brain about setting up a large scale flow-through worm composting bed – with the intention of vermicomposting the camp’s compostable food waste. Needless to say, I was pretty keen to learn more about the project and to lend a hand in any way I could!

As it turns out, rather than selling Leanne worms (a fairly large expense for a project with a limited budget), I suggested we try out a “worm loan” instead. One of her concerns had been what to do with the worms at the end of the season, so I figured it would make more sense for me to simply provide her with as many worms as she needed, then to transport them back home at the end of the summer. Leanne seemed quite concerned about the possibility of me losing my vermi-investment (haha), but I assured her that it wasn’t exactly going to keep me up at night.
😉

The inspiration for the Silver Lake vermicomposting bed was provided by Larry Duke, a prominent member of the vermicomposters forum, and someone I was introduced to by Mark from Kansas (thanks again, Mark!). Here is a cool video tour of the system that Larry put together:

Find more videos like this on vermicomposters.com

Here is a direct link to the video as well: http://vermicomposters.ning.com/video/goterdone-1

I am anxiously awaiting photos of the finished Silver Lake system, but I did get (from Leanne) some shots taken during construction, and it certainly looks as though they are headed in the right direction.

Leanne came by to pick up her first batch of worms this week and we had a good opportunity to chat all about her plans. The kids don’t arrive until July, so June represents an important time for getting the Red Worm population established in the bed. I’m still not 100% sure what sort of food waste output the camp will be producing, but the impression I got was that it could 20-30lb or more per day. To provide an extra boost of vermicomposting power, I was thinking of providing Leanne with some Worm Inn systems as well.

Apart from playing the role of “worm loan and general advice guy” (an honorable title in itself – haha), I actually have plans to visit the camp at least two or three times during the summer to see how things are coming along (and to add more worms to the system). Of course, I will be taking lots of pictures and writing much more about this project here as well! I know many readers will be interested to learn more, and this will almost certainly serve as an important model for other camps and organizations wishing to start similar initiatives.

Stay tuned! Much more info to come.
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Worm Cocoon Hatching-06-02-10

Red Worm Cocoon
If you look closely you can actually see at least one baby worm coiled up in this cocoon


As alluded to in other posts etc, I haven’t had all that much time lately for my usual RWC activities – such as blogging, newsletter writing, and tending to hair-brained experiments!
😉

So yeah, the long and the short of it is that before doing so today, I hadn’t opened my worm cocoon hatching bins since May 22! Needless to say, that kinda throws off my planned daily observations! haha

What’s funny though, is the fact that – after making my observations today – I’ve realized my initial plans were a tad unrealistic AND unnecessary! There are definitely changes to report, but it doesn’t look as though I have missed all that much (an observation which in itself is pretty interesting/surprising).

Because it’s been about a week and a half since my last check on the bins, I decided to do a VERY thorough examination of the contents of each system. One at a time, I dumped each container into a big plastic bowl, and then carefully put everything (other than empty cocoons) back into the container. I literally left no cardboard shred unturned! haha

There were three main things I was watching for: 1) baby worms 2) empty cocoons and 3) full cocoons (unhatched), but I also kept my eyes open for anything else of significance. Here are the numbers thus far.

Cardboard – Room Temperature
Baby Worms – 7
Empty Cocoons – 3
Full Cocoons – 13

Cardboard – 3 Day Fridge Exposure
Baby Worms – 6
Empty Cocoons – 2
Full Cocoons – 14

Cardboard + Cantaloupe – Room Temperature
Baby Worms – 9
Empty Cocoons – 3
Full Cocoons – 13

Cardboard + Cantaloupe – 3 Day Fridge Exposure
Baby Worms – 7
Empty Cocoons – 3
Full Cocoons – 13

I was really surprised by the similarity between the treatments. I thought for sure that even if there wasn’t any significant treatment effect (way more worms hatching out in the cantaloupe treatments, for example), the results would still end up a bit more all over the place.

I wasn’t too surprised to see that worms in the cantaloupe treatments were bigger in general than the cardboard only treatments. It’s hard to say for sure if this is due to earlier hatching or better nutrition (or both) – and THIS is definitely the one question that makes me wish that I had at least done the occasional quick check on the systems to see where worms were hatching first.

Baby Red Worm
Baby Worm from a Cardboard-Only Treatment (magnified considerably)

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if any differences between treatments start to appear. I am also eager to try a similar set up with aged manure as a “food” to see if hatching occurs more quickly when it is present. While I certainly won’t be making daily observations for this experiment, I do want to check on the bins a bit more often than I have been – at least once or twice per week.

Stay tuned!
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